Tom Jenkinson is an old man. He is a young man, a man of indeterminate age. The title of his most recent album asked the question: Do You Know Squarepusher? It is obvious now that even if we thought we did, we do not.
Is there any genre more obsessively frantic than forward-leaning electronic music? It can't even pick a name for itself -- IDM just doesn't work, really. Try spinning "Confield" at the local warehouse rave and you'll get some weird stares. It's less dance music than exploding music, the sound of music moving faster and faster and faster until it just can't keep up with its own feet.
And so the man known as Squarepusher decided he wanted to get off the train. He is an old man, by now, having released as many albums and EP's and singles in those strange, furious years of the late '90s and early '00s as many artists do in a lifetime. Right about the time that Richard D. James decided he wanted to slow down, more or less, Jenkinson decided he wanted everything sped up.
But then things started getting weird. By the time he asked us if we knew who Squarepusher was, perhaps he was asking for his benefit more than ours. Perhaps he was simply tired, tired of having to constantly reinvent himself, not merely with every album but with every individual song and sometimes even multiple times in the same song. Perhaps that's why Do You Know Squarepusher sounded so tired. By the time he covered Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart", you realized that the album felt very much like it could be his last.
Which could explain the long hiatus between Do You Know Squarepusher and Ultravisitor. Jenkinson was gone for 18 months -- a year and a half -- and an eternity in the world of IDM. The only solution is that he had to totally reinvigorate everything about Squarepusher; that he had to smash it all and start from scratch.
And now, he's back, and he's a young man again. When you pick up the jewel case and see a straight-faced photo of Jenkinson himself staring back at you, it is then that the realization hits that this is not your average IDM record. Artists like Autechre and Plaid have spent entire careers blurring the lines between humanity and the prospect of life as anonymous robots. Aphex Twin just likes to freak people out, pasting his unforgettable mug -- that of an evil, lost Brontë brother, left to wander the forbidding highlands of northern England -- onto the faces of evil urchins and buxom bikini babes. Putting his plain and unvarnished face onto the cover of the CD is as radical a conceptual statement as Squarepusher could possibly make.
And the album sounds different. The first thing you'll notice is the use of actual acoustic drumming, in addition to electric guitar. The instruments aren't sampled and sliced to death, either -- these raw sounds survive mostly unmolested, presented side-by-side with the normal menagerie of warped and mutated clicks and beeps.
The problem is that Jenkinson's new approach isn't quite there yet. There are a few moments on the album that really do seem like the birth of something special and new, but there are also long passages that seem torn from earlier albums -- boilerplate drill & bass to appease the hardcore. Jenkinson has yet to master the delicate tension between organic and artificial that artists like Pole and Matmos seem to understand instinctively.
There are moments, however, when you catch a glimpse of what Squarepusher is trying to be. The opening title track is simply amazing, pulling every element of Squarepusher 2.0 together and pressing it across the speakers and into your ears like a fine, glittery paste. Similarly, tracks like "Iambic 9 Poetry" and the album closing "Every Day I Love" point to a future that owes more to DJ Shadow than Autechre.
Ultimately, Jenkinson has made a noble and captivating attempt to change everything about the way Squarepusher approaches music. It is to be expected that this new vision should be only partially successful right out of the gate.
Those with longer memories might recall 1998's Music Is Rotted One Note. That album can now be seen as something of a precursor to Ultravisitor, presenting as it does Jenkinson's early thoughts on the notion of New Fusion -- the bridge between jazz and electronics. That album was only partially successful because it attempted merely to exploit the dichotomy between the two forms instead of interpreting a bold synthesis. Ultravisitor points to a far more successful future, and the possibility of Jenkinson recording his very own Bitches Brew grows stronger with every listen.